Retailers Look for Items to Distinguish Themselves From the Competition at Designers & Agents Show

NEW YORK — Despite being relatively buoyed by an uptick in business in recent months, buyers at last week’s Designers & Agents show were searching the aisles with specific objectives in mind.

Rather than race through reorders with tried-and-true resources — which used to be routine procedure for many — retailers were on the lookout for independent, finely crafted items at the three-day show at the Starrett Lehigh Building. More quality-driven than brand-driven, some sought designers or resources that delivered their own personal stories which would in turn be shared with shoppers.

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With the average American woman owning 103 items of clothing (based on a ClosetMaid 2021 survey), buyers needed no reminding about most consumers’ actual need for fashion is one matter and sparking interest is another one altogether.

Lana Barakat, owner of December Thieves, an apparel boutique with an adjacent home decor and accessories store in Boston, was looking for fashion and accessories from small independent designers and “brands that have a soul or a back story.” Such personal connections can make a difference, she explained. It’s helpful “to have the opportunity to meet with designers to know that things are made ethically and with passion.” Barakat said if she is inspired by them, so too will her shoppers be.

In addition to new resources, she checked out existing ones like Love Binetti. Coming off a “very strong January,” store traffic “is back to where it was” and sales are running more than 10 percent ahead of last year. The average purchase in both stores is about $300 to $350.

Barakat explained, “People are more confident about spending. But they are spending with purpose. They are looking for brands that are meaningful, give back and have successfully been part of the community.”

Scouting brands for the Nashville, Tennessee, boutique Alice that she runs with her mother Betsy Taylor, Edie Caldwell said they were attending a New York trade show for the first time. Since opening 18 months ago, the store has focused on high-quality European designers. So much so that some clients refer to it as “Paris.” Clients typically spend anywhere from $200 to $1,200.

At D&A, they bought from existing resources like Susanne Bommer and picked up new domestic ones like The Little Project, a Los Angeles-based company. Catering to lifestyle changes has been key for the Alice owners and other retailers. “After COVID-19 as the world was getting back together and [people were getting] back on their feet, I noticed that shoppers wanted a closet of staples. They had cleaned them out and want a capsule wardrobe. We carry that with a little oomph. A buttoned-up blouse might have a rounded collar or a poet sleeve,” Caldwell said.

Many of the store’s shoppers are trim, smaller frame women who sometimes need some coercing to embrace the relaxed, oversize styles that the mother-daughter team favor. Noting how some are conscientious about not wanting to look bigger than they are in slouchy styles, they are encouraged to only buy what they feel comfortable in, Caldwell said. “We want you to wear the clothes — not for the clothes to wear you. But we tell them, ‘It’s OK to be comfortable. If you feel good in it, you should like it,’” she said.

Fashion designer Byron Lars saw a lot of interest in the dresses that were offered in his signature In Earnest collection. Their “one-and-done” ease of dressing remains a selling point. Fitted cotton shirts, a category that Lars started his business with years ago, were also popular with show buyers, he said, as were shirtdresses and jackets with a sense of fun and humor, as in a slim-fitting embellished varsity style.

Presenting the In Earnest by Byron Lars collection for the first time at the show with his cofounder Sheila Gray, the namesake designer said, “Even though it hasn’t been like the salad days, we have had a really great show.”

In Earnest by Byron Lars was among the show’s offerings. Here, a few designs from the collection.

In Earnest by Byron Lars was among the show’s offerings. Here, a few designs from the collection.

As for what is making consumers spend, Lars said, “Two things — one is for practicality. You’re checking a box for something they need to replenish. That’s not us. Another is a visceral response to something — if it moves you and excites you. I think that’s what we bring to the table,” Lars said.

Having recently launched a ready-to-wear division, The Little Project’s Terry Sahagen-Layton also picked up some new accounts at the show. Many buyers were buying the whole collection — shirts, jackets and bottoms — she said. Having worked in the fashion industry for years, she said there has been a shift away from item-driven orders. “But I think it comes in waves. People buy items and collections. I’m just excited that our brand is being bought as a collection. It’s a good compliment that they want to buy it as a full collection. But you can item out anything here.”

On the lookout for art wear for their Key West boutique Hands On, Diane Shelby and Coco Vivien said they were having “limited success” finding new resources for “mostly handmade, timeless small collections” for apparel, jewelry and other accessories. Partial to a certain elegance, they veer away from anything that is mass produced. Peter O. Mahler is among the vendors they order from. “What’s changed for us as an art wear store, some of our creative people are starting to retire. There seems to be no one coming up to replace them in the handcrafted, hand-dyed, handwoven arena,” Shelby said.

Knowing their clientele ”only want something that nobody else has,” the pair said they find themselves working harder and harder to find people who are doing very small editions or one-of-a-kind. “We are in a tough segment that seems to be getting tougher,” Shelby said.

Her co-owner agreed. “The high-end creative people are getting out of the business for different reasons — age or they want to take care of their grandkids. They are not being replaced except by a few unusual ones like textile painters or weavers. But they are largely going by the wayside,” Vivien said. Despite that challenge, their business has been consistently steady, thanks to snowbirds and year-round shoppers.

Back at D&A for the first time in a few years, the Museum of Art and Design’s Bryna Pomp found two jewelry designers for its upcoming “Mad About Jewelry” sale. The four-day sale will feature 50 contemporary jewelry designers and will begin April 25. This year’s kickoff event will honor Bergdorf Goodman’s senior vice president of the fashion office and director of women’s fashion and store presentation Linda Fargo. Pomp typically considers “thousands” of jewelry designers before deciding on the final 50. Every invited artist is required to be present throughout the sale at the museum. Prices can range from under $100 to about $10,000, but the majority is between $500 and $1,000, Pomp said. Next month’s sale will feature artists from 20 different countries.

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